CHICAGO – Japanese Style


Frankly, I was tremendously disappointed.

Not that that Takarazuka’s Japanese-language production of CHICAGO wasn’t slick and wonderfully performed. But my heart sank the second I entered the Theatre Formerly Known as the State and saw a distressed gold proscenium arch as well as a derby propped on the back of a stage right chair.

Oh, no! This was going to be a photocopy of the revival that’ll soon enter its third decade on Broadway!

Comparing the original CHICAGO in 1975 to the 1996 revival is akin to comparing the meal Vandergelder bought Dolly to the watery gruel dispensed to Oliver. The sets, costumes and larger ensemble made Bob Fosse’s original far more impressive and costly than the comparative shards that Broadway has seen these 19-plus years.

If you’ve been to any Takarazuka productions in Japan or have seen videos, you know that the company offers lavish extravaganzas that are as populous as a small town. Hell, even when Takarazuka did ERNEST IN LOVE — a musical version of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST originally conceived for a 15-member off-Broadway cast — it buttressed the show with literally two dozen Londoners to make duets into big production numbers. What’s more, Takarazuka set designers weren’t going to settle for the two modest home-and-gardens that off-Broadway saw; they created a veritable botanical garden and a two-level townhouse that was much more than Algernon would have ever been able to afford.

So I expected that this CHICAGO would at least restore the show to Fosse’ former glory – or trump that ace by sporting even more dazzling sets and costumes. But if you were in the last row of the orchestra, you wouldn’t have been able to tell this CHICAGO from the one that’s been on Broadway lo these many years. It had the same number of cast members – 19 — as you’d get on Broadway, too.

All right, maybe you would have seen a difference, because if the current Broadway revival that I last saw in 2013 is any indication, it was not just tired then, but exhausted. No such bad luck here. If you wanted to see CHICAGO at a higher level, then this production – alas, only in town the latter half of last week — was the one to see.

(It was cheaper, too. The best seats were $110, compared to $149 to $203 you’d pay 15 streets downtown.)

Of course the unique card that Takarazuka has been playing for more than a century is that all its performers are women. Yes, Billy Flynn, Amos Hart, Fred Casely and all the chorus “boys” were female. So Billy Flynn wasn’t as tall as the ones we’re used to, and Amos Hart wasn’t as beefy. As for Mary Sunshine – originally a man playing a woman – did we now have a woman playing a man playing a woman? For when Billy stripped off Mary’s garments, you’d swear that this was a ringer, from the breasts that barely passed for moobs and the chest full of hair that admittedly could have been sprayed on. But after the show, talking to some Takarazuka powers-that-be, I was told that indeed here was one biological male on the scene.

When women portray men, they come across as very young men –especially when the chorus boys have shaved armpits. So in a way, the “men” here looked like high-school boys who had the opportunity to work with many women guest artists. But, as Che sings in EVITA, that’s not the point, my friends. Females-playing-males is its own special art form, analogous to trouser roles in opera and drag in British pantomimes. Like non-traditional casting, it’s not meant to be realistic, but simply a theatrical convention. Chances are that those American attendees who didn’t know Takarazuka from Tanganyika were at first wary or resistant but eventually adjusted, sat back and enjoyed the show. The Asian contingency, however, knew what to expect coming in and often roared their approval when a woman entered as a man.

Anyone who wasn’t well-versed in the Japanese language — and/or hadn’t ever seen CHICAGO — would still have been able to understand every word, for efficient supertitles explained the action. Occasionally the actors did say a few English words (“Me, myself and I”) or would pronounce an occasional word differently (“Mister Cello-FAHN”). One lyric was even inexplicable changed: “Class” had “theft” changed to “knife,” which certainly doesn’t rhyme with “left.” Finally, would Sophie Tucker have ever dreamed that she and her alleged propensity to defecate when astonished would ever show up in a Japanese lyric?

When playing the dummy in the ventriloquism number “We Both Reached for the Gun,” Yoga Yamato seemed to shed all 206 bones in her body to be utterly pliable. Saki Asaji’s Billy Flynn didn’t do the drink-of-water trick, but she did hold her penultimate note for an inordinately long amount of time, which these days always makes a crowd go wild.

Yamato was really too sweet-faced to play Roxie. Remember, of the half dozen musicals that Gwen Verdon performed on Broadway (CHICAGO was her last), five of them had her cast as a woman of questionable virtue. So in a way, Yamato was miscast, although her singing, dancing and acting showed why director David Hyslop and choreographer Gary Chryst had to have her. Natsuki Mizu’s Velma Kelly was an especially adept dancer and high-kicked so high that she missed her forehead by less than an inch and risked a concussion.

Chihiro Isono did well by “Mister Cellophane” until the very end. While hearing the considerable applause (which, for that matter, everyone got), she suddenly dropped the poor-me persona, became Chihiro Isono again and basked in the glory.

On the other hand, a case can be made that that’s the way vaudevillians of old reacted once their act was done – and CHICAGO is nothing if not, as the ads say, “a musical vaudeville.” It’s a musical masterpiece, too, but it wouldn’t have been if Fosse, his co-bookwriter-and-lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander hadn’t used this theatrical style and metaphor. If CHICAGO had been done as a realistic musical, we’d come away dissatisfied because we’d never be able to like and get behind the murderous, unrepentant and social-climbing Roxie Hart. Here, with everything so stylized, we didn’t have to; the characters were less real and seemed to be entertainers who happened to be telling a story.

T. Okamoto gave Mary Sunshine the best coloratura I’ve heard from Newark to Utrecht (Holland) in the nine CHICAGO productions I’ve seen in the past 39 years. He also looked as if he were having the time of his life up there.

Perhaps it’s his first trip to New York. If it is, Mr. Okamoto, don’t go see CHICAGO at the Ambassador; you’ll only be disappointed – much more so, in fact, than I was at seeing your business-as-usual CHICAGO when I wanted splendor.